BY JEFF LEVEN
It’s a double-album. Well, no, it’s actually two solo albums. Thirty-nine tracks (ten skits!), guest appearances by Jay-Z, Cee-Lo, Norah Jones (!), Ludacris, Kelis and Rosario Dawson. A mix of styles and sounds conjuring up visions of George Clinton and Prince jello-wrestling in some smoky jazz club with the window open and a boom-boom-boom box blaring some stripped old skool chisel-beat into the whole room while some G-thang ghost screws with the faders on the soundboard and Andre 3000 pretends he’s Dean F’in Martin. Sound nonsensical? Don’t blame me, man, blame Outkast. They call it Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It’s dizzy, it’s hot, it’s great, it’s weird and it’s awfully hard to write about. Outkast done threw the kitchen sink at us. And so maybe the best way to lay it all out for you is to take a breath and throw it back:
How One Might Feel About the Whole Two-Album Thing
There are two ways to come at this. A lot of the time hip hop is really a singles-based medium and albums are basically filler tacked on to the big club single. It would stand to follow that the development of the concept album is part of hip hop’s embracing of its own maturity. That would certainly be a natural way to think about Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow or Outkast albums like Stankonia. All this being said, hip hop has generally reveled in excess, too. It’s safe to say that within a few years every cough, hiccup and burp that 2Pac ever recorded in the studio will be packaged and sent out the door in some form or another, and his disciples are not the only ones in the genre willing to sell just about anything they bother to put on wax. Part of what’s most admirable about hip hop is the sheer profusion of ideas that cause artists to build huge, sprawling albums around a story-line, theme or mood. Part of what often makes these albums frustrating is that lots of people can create, but seemingly almost no one knows how to edit. Too often concept albums mean that a lot of stuff was thrown against the wall in the hopes that a couple tracks stuck. As in rock, sometimes it doesn’t get much more dangerous than concept albums in hip hop, particularly when half of the album is pointless little skits and interludes that muddle the plot more than enhance it. A double concept album, well, that’s about as thin as the ice can get, right?
In some respects, Outkast is totally guilty as charged. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below are perhaps the Use Your Illusion I and II of modern hip hop – big, sprawling and utterly and completely undisciplined. Random skits litter the tracks, and while Andre 3000’s platter (The Love Below) hovers around the simple theme of love or, more often, slippery sex, Big Boi’s disc swerves from politics to street bravado to Job-in-Timberland reality checks, thus calling into question how and why these things are paired in the first place. The answer is probably pretty simple: Rather than suffer the ego-clashing hassles and soul labor of collaborating on a new album, Big Boi and Andre chose to do two solo albums, but rather than break up, they chose to package it as an Outkast offering. And yet somehow there’s an interdependence to these discs that makes them more rewarding as a pair than they would be if they stood alone as solo albums, and, when heard in tandem, they actually become as unified as any Outkast offering. This isn’t quite like the four Kiss solo albums that were released on the same day. This isn’t even really Use Your Illusion. This is the product of two members of a musical pair using their individual inclinations to show off their combined strength. As a result, there’s a joy and individualistic energy to the pairing that makes it as good as anything they’ve ever released.
Is One of Them Better?
Brave boys for packaging it this way all the same. They HAD to know they would be compared head-on by everyone. And yet, that being said, there’s very little sense of competition on the albums themselves. Frankly, they just veer off in very different directions. For his part, Andre 3000 is the more intrepid voyager, recording what really tends to sound like a long-lost Prince or Rick James album in places. Big Boi, however, throws in a few surprises of his own, sketching out a few new directions before reclaiming the George Clinton legacy and throwing down some more traditional grooves. Together the albums confirm what many people have long assumed about Outkast – that somehow the pairing works because of the space they leave each other and the incredible range that they both have in their abilities and sensibilities. In other words, the supposed battle between the two discs is a draw and the listener wins.
Big Boi’s Album: Speakerboxxx
While utilizing less of a coherent concept than Andre’s album, Speakerboxxx busts out of the gate with the wild, stringent “Ghetto Musick,” a dancy, hooky, overwhelmingly bass-bursty instant club-classic that pauses occasionally to warble out some funk organ. From there it’s on to the more laid-back R&B of “Unhappy” and the George Clinton funk-fest of “Bowtie.” As the album goes on, songs like the tense, tight, guitar-fueled funk of “Rooster” keep the momentum going, while “Tomb of the Bomb” features Ludacris but easily beats him at his own game – offering tight, fast-flowing hooks with just enough room to breathe that they sound musical rather than processed. Of the two efforts, Big Boi’s seems to be the more socially-focused, as songs like the menacing “Church” serve as meaningful entries into Outkast’s repertoire of songs that provide a more weathered and sensitive look at a life on the streets than you can usually get out of acts whose instincts are as hard as Outkast’s sometimes can be. Ultimately, like Outkast as a full unit, Big Boi’s effort is neither soft nor stringent – it has just enough of a fun, commercial underbelly to be a party disc, but a hard enough head to make it a more cerebral ride than many other albums with less perfectly-crafted swagger.
Andre’s Album: The Love Below
Simultaneously fusing a certain sappy, syrupy, perhaps more than-a-little tongue-in-cheek romanticism on songs like “Happy Valentine’s Day,” and a more flat-out dirtay love-is-lubrication raw sexuality on songs like “Spread,” Andre comes off as a goofy lothario with kooky velvet visions to spare. Of the two, it’s a slightly easier ride as the off-kilter sheer lounge music of “Love Hater” gives way to the purple rains of the very-Prince-esque “Roses,” or the deep old skool of “Behold A Lady” (reminiscent of Cameo’s “Word Up”), cresting with the untitled drum-and-bass-meets-traditional jazz collision of worlds that segues into the soft and rootsy “Take Off Your Cool” (featuring Norah Jones on piano and vocals). Sandwiched in between are flat-out fun bursts of weirdness like “Dracula’s Wedding” and the Violent Femmes-gone-Dirty South jam “Hey Ya!” Andre’s guitar-playing is excellent throughout, and his voice and inflections carry an exuberance last heard on wax sometime around the heyday of Prince, Michael Jackson, and the best of 80s pop.
The Booty-Bass Connection
It’s a well-known biochemicalsocial fact that heavy bass has a direct effect on the rump. George Clinton used to say “free your mind and your ass will follow,” but a lot of groups have reversed that, and Outkast is foremost amongst them. What’s greatest about Outkast just might be their ability to reinvent the musical groove with each successive track. Indeed, the greatest joy on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is the sprawling rhythmic diversity. Textured, constructed, kinetic compositions are the order of the day here. While meatheads like 50 Cent pound out simple, monotonous beats, Outkast’s low-tone roadmap is a sprawling network of cadences, cues and simple musicality. The sort of thing that makes you think hip hop has come a really long way from the simple Casio-keyboard beats of the old skool past or even the loop-a-cool-bassline-or-riff mechanics of Dr. Dre. These guys are musicians, not cutter
s, pasters, or collage-makers. And you can still shake to it.
A Final Hosanna: The Undisciplined Chaos of Self-Aware Genius
The thing with Outkast is they know they’re the top dogs. Not stuck in any of the usual hip hop categories, Outkast plays all ends against each other. With more mass appeal than J5, more brains than anyone at Bad Boy, and more soul than any of the underground stuff, Outkast isn’t “conscious,” it isn’t “bling,” it’s just Outkast. And so they get away with this, a weird, sprawling, hey-why-not-throw-this-in orgy of self-indulgent genius. These are self-conscious hyper-talents going haywire all the way to the bank and the critic’s heart. It is a concept package so crazy and unfiltered that they were either going to crash beautifully or win sloppily. Well, this time they pulled it off, and from here the challenge will be to reintegrate, refocus and reinvent Outkast as something more tight and cohesive. But for now, forget your expectations and enjoy the wild ride.